Eleven years ago today, my friend David took his own life. I write about it every year, trying to capture what his death meant to me then and what it means to me still. But I’ve never written about the day he died, at least not in any great detail. I meant to. I assumed after it happened I would get moments of clarity and be able to succinctly recount the details of April 6, 2000, but the clarity never came. But now it’s more than a decade later and it feels like now might be the right time to tell the story.
David was in my English class. He lived just a few neighborhoods over from me. He had brown eyes, an unforgettable laugh, six-pack abs and smelled like the leather from his jacket. Early in 2000, David attempted an overdose. He was out from school for a while, but survived the ordeal and came back. My friends and I gathered around him, one on each arm, clinging, glad to have him there. We didn’t know all the details, but we knew something had happened and that we should be lucky to still have him in our lives. The doctors who had treated him suggested he get psychiatric treatment, but he didn’t want to and his parents didn’t press it or prioritize it.
David and I dated, briefly. Our romantic relationship lasted roughly as long as Britney Spears’ first marriage. He broke it off with me, April 5th, 2000, telling me he didn’t want me to get hurt, a sentiment he would also share with friends the next day.
On April 6th, David drove me to school. He drove me home too. On the way to his car, a 1987 Honda Civic Hatchback, we bummed a single cigarette from a friend. We shared it on the way to my house and I regret, to this day, not offering him more of it. He asked me, on the way home if I wanted him to pick me up the next morning for school. He said he’d come a little later, after the bus, and I was worried he’d oversleep and I wouldn’t get to school on time. So I said no, I’d be fine. I’d take the bus and see him in class. He asked if I was sure, and again I said I’d be fine. When we got to my house, he asked me again, with a weird look, if I was absolutely sure he didn’t want me to pick him up. Again, I said no, I’d be fine. I thanked him for the ride and instead of pulling away right away, like he usually did, he waited for me to get to the door before driving off.
That was 2:36 PM.
That night I was scheduled to sell concessions before and during the intermission of my school’s performance of Cinderella. Before the show I saw my friend Josh who heard some kid from our school named David had killed himself. He said it had been on the news. I told him that was sad and that I hoped it wasn’t anyone I knew. Honestly, the thought of it being the David I knew was the furthest thing from my mind. I had seen him just a few hours before and he was alive, so surely, whoever Josh was talking about was someone else, some unknown person.
I was called into an office to speak with my principle and English teacher. They said it was about David. I was nervous, not because I remembered what Josh had said, but because David had stopped at a park on the way to school to smoke pot and I was with him. While I didn’t partake, and while I vividly remember David’s frustration with my refusal to get high before school, I was afraid the school had somehow found out and that I was about to get suspended for something I wasn’t guilty of, or worse, they were going to question me about David’s actions that morning. I mentally searched the contents of my purse and for once was thankful I wasn’t carrying a pack of cigarettes.
But I wasn’t in trouble. They told me something had happened to David. There had been some sort of accident. David had died.
I asked if they were sure. I asked how they knew, if they really, really knew that it was my David, the David who sat next to me in the my high school English class. Surely it was another David Smith – that’s a pretty common name, right? This could be a mistake. There was a moment of confusion. The school listed him as a freshman, even though he was in sophomore English and for a moment, I thought they were wrong. I thought it was some fucked up mistake that I’d laugh about someday. I thought for sure it wasn’t true.
But my English teacher said no, they knew who it was. It was David Smith, my David Smith. They were sure. It wasn’t a mistake.
The tears started, in earnest this time, as my mind tried to come up with some other explanation, some other response that could make this whole thing disappear. I was standing, then sitting. I was staring at the floor, memorizing the floor tiles trying to catch my breath and rationalize what was happening. Someone gave me a box of tissues. I asked what happened. My principle said he had fallen from a bridge. She said maybe it was a mistake, maybe he had just fallen. I said no. I knew better. I knew it wasn’t a mistake. David had jumped.
My English teacher and principle said they wanted me to know before I saw it on the news and that they were going to announce it after the show. They knew we were close and were worried about what would happen if I found out the wrong way.
Marie, a theater friend, drove me home. I kept the box of tissues. They were crap. Rough, public school tissues in a green box. I kept smoothing out the corners. Fidgeting. Crying.
I got home and collapsed. I cried on the floor, waiting for my mother to get home so we could go somewhere, anywhere but there, and when she finally did we drove for a while, West on I-66, listening to Sarah McLachlan as I chain smoked Marlboro Reds.
From the road I called my best friend, to let her know what had happened.
When I got home there was a wailing message from another friend in English class. Someone from the school had called her too. For two minutes she had cried into my answering machine begging and pleading for it to be a mistake. Over and over she cried, saying “not David, please not David.”
When all the details got put together I learned that David had left my house at 2:36 PM and driven to an overpass about 15 minutes away. I was the last person to see him alive. He had tried to drive his car over the overpass, but, when that failed, he got out and jumped. David was a swimmer. He dove. He died on impact. And the local headlines the next day reported on how the death of a local man had backed up traffic on Northern Virginia interstates.
There’s more to the story. There’s a decade worth of me trying to make sense of it. There’s the funeral. The wake. There’s a tree I carved with his initials. There’s the way I heard people at my school, who didn’t know who I was, talking about how it was my fault because we’d broken up the day before. There’s the way his mother cried at the funeral. There’s the voice recording they later played for me that made it all seem like a bad dream. There’s the memories. There’s the tattoo I got to memorialize him.The indelible mark he left on me.
There’s so much, just like there was so much to David. He was thinking about joining the Navy, about getting a tattoo of a big Celtic cross on his right arm. He taught himself to do headstands. His birthday was the day before mine and every single year that has passed I think about how old he would be.
He’d be 27, just like me.
I try each year to make sense out of what happened, to figure out what I could have done, to sort out the guilt I will forever harbor. But I’m still not there yet. I still don’t understand it. I probably never will.
Losing David was bigger than any hurt I’ve ever felt before or since. I cannot explain it, no matter how hard I try. It is horrible. But David dying taught me how to live. The weight and hurt that he caused me and so many of my peers was something I knew I could never do to anyone else.
So I lived.
Rest in Peace, David. I love you. I miss you. I forgive you.